Home Stretch

After another tough back-to-back, Pistons get to play The Palace for 4 straight
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Allen Iverson has made his debut at The Palace and he’s visited five other NBA arenas as a member of the Detroit Pistons, but there’s one first he’s yet to cross off of his list.

“He hasn’t shot a basket yet in the practice facility,” Pistons vice president Scott Perry said Monday after the team wrapped up its four-game Western Conference road trip with a 3-1 record that boosts them to 7-3 for the season.

Iverson’s first experience at the team’s practice facility will come Tuesday when the Pistons regroup after a grueling 15-day stretch that has seen them play seven of eight games on the road – and, since the only home game was a 48-hour stopover sandwiched between trips to both coasts, it really felt like a two-week road trip.

But the Pistons survived it, going 5-3 despite the dislocation of the Iverson-Chauncey Billups trade that not only required the Pistons to quickly adapt to Iverson’s radically different strengths and tendencies, but also to the loss of Antonio McDyess and the subsequent reordering of the frontcourt rotation.

It doesn’t get immediately easier for the Pistons, though. The first game upon their return comes Wednesday when they host Cleveland, which has won seven straight. And they head back out of town right after the game – destination: Boston. So in a little more than 24 hours, the East’s three top contenders will get a chance to size each other up.

After the game in Boston is in the books, though, the Pistons get a small chance to catch their breath and come home for the holidays. Their next four games will be at The Palace – all of them against teams that didn’t make the 2008 playoffs, but all of them with realistic hopes of turning that around this season.

Minnesota, New York, Milwaukee and Portland will visit The Palace in an eight-day period that brackets the Thanksgiving holiday. Fans can take advantage of a special Thanksgiving with the Pistons ticket offer, too, getting a four-pack of tickets to each of the four games for just $44 – $11 per ticket – for tickets regularly priced at $40 apiece.

“Our Thanksgiving games always bring out some of our most enthusiastic, lively crowds of the season,” Pistons CEO Tom Wilson said. “College kids coming back home and families looking for a memorable night out have made these games something of a holiday tradition. We know the economic news hasn’t been great, but at these prices it’s an affordable night that’s going to leave everyone feeling they got plenty of bang for their hard-earned buck.”

For Pistons fans, the extended home stand not only will give them a chance to see how the integration of Iverson is progressing, but also to see some of the best young talent in the league. Minnesota comes to The Palace for a 6 p.m. game Sunday, followed by New York on the night before Thanksgiving, Milwaukee the night after and Portland on the Sunday to wrap up the holiday weekend.

Minnesota’s 1-8 record is disappointing, but the Timberwolves have played a road-heavy schedule and have lost a number of tough games, including two in overtime. They are significantly more talented than a year ago, from the improvement of young players like Al Jefferson and Randy Foye to the addition of veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller and lottery pick Kevin Love out of UCLA.

Jefferson, the key for Minnesota in the deal that sent Kevin Garnett to Boston, is averaging 22.3 points and 10.6 rebounds a game and has evolved into an All-Star-caliber player.

“He’s improved every year in the league,” Perry said. “He’s a tough matchup in the low post, he has excellent hands, strength, very good footwork around the basket, shoots a high percentage and commands double teams. Whenever you have a low post threat like that, it opens up so many things for the rest of the ballclub.”

The Knicks rank as one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises, racking up six wins in their first 10 games despite the adjustment to Mike D’Antoni’s wide-open attack. Two players with ties to Michigan – Jamal Crawford (University of Michigan) and Zach Randolph (Michigan State) – are leading the Knicks, Crawford scoring 23 points a game and shooting 47 percent from the 3-point line, Randolph averaging 20.8 points and 12.9 rebounds.

Randolph, like Jefferson, is an unorthodox wide body with a natural scorer’s instincts.

“The Knicks are playing very well,” Perry said. “It’s a free-flowing style and guys are gaining confidence in their offensive abilities in D’Antoni’s system. Zach has always been able to score the basketball, no matter what system you put him in. He’s probably in better shape this year, from what I’ve seen, and he has very good hands, a lot like Jefferson, and an extremely good touch around the basket.”

Another player with ties to Michigan, 2005 Mr. Basketball Wilson Chandler from Benton Harbor, has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 13.8 points for the Knicks after being their No. 1 pick in 2007.

Milwaukee, in the process of being rebuilt in the Pistons’ image under former Joe Dumars’ aide John Hammond, is off to a 5-6 start despite not having Team USA gold medal winner Michael Redd available for its last seven games. Redd, though, is expected to return well before Milwaukee’s visit to The Palace.

“Michael Redd has been out, but they’ve had guys coming in and stepping up,” Perry said. “Defense is going to be (new coach Scott) Skiles’ emphasis and John knows the way to become a team that’s going to win big in this league is being tough and defensive-minded and Skiles brings that on the bench.”

With Redd in the lineup, Milwaukee has a 1-2 scoring punch as potent as any in the Central Division with Richard Jefferson’s addition via trade from New Jersey. The Bucks also have plenty of size with Andrew Bogut and Charlie Villanueva up front. The surprise has been the play of UCLA second-rounder Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a strong defender who has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 10.6 points and 7.5 rebounds. Milwaukee also has 2008 lottery pick Joe Alexander trying to work his way into the mix.

Portland, which wraps up the Thanksgiving with the Pistons menu, is one of the league’s most fascinating teams. To a core that includes three-year veterans Brandon Roy (21.3 points, 5.4 assists) and LaMarcus Aldridge (16.7 points, 7.1 rebounds), Portland is introducing two of the league’s most intriguing rookies in 7-footer Greg Oden and Spanish star Rudy Fernandez.

Oden, who missed all of his rookie season due to a knee injury and then suffered a foot sprain minutes into the season opener, turned in two promising games last week, flashing his potential to be a dominant rebounder and shot blocker.

“They’re a very young, very talented team,” Perry said. “Roy and Aldridge are guys who played a lot of minutes in their first few years and are quickly becoming very good veteran players. Roy is an old-school, throwback player who does everything well. Those guys have grown up fast.

“Now you add Oden, who as long as he stays healthy is going to be a force to be reckoned with for a long time. He’s one of the better shot blockers and rebounders to come into the league in a long while. And Fernandez brings excitement off the bench. They’re a good young team that’s ready to go out and compete at a high level.”